Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)

2018 #67
Jon Favreau | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Zathura

Before Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle there was Zathura, which is sort of a sequel to Jumanji… but more of a spin-off, I guess… well, really it’s a completely unrelated movie with the exact same plot. Inspired by another book by the same author, it sees two kids (Jonah Bobo and a very baby-faced Josh Hutcherson) discover an old board game that comes to life with terrifying consequences, and the only way to make it stop is to finish the game. But this game is about space, so it’s completely different, obviously.

Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to avoid assessing the film’s quality in comparison it to its predecessor. The thing that struck me most was it feels less consequential than Jumanji, somehow. In the previous film the stakes feel high — you worry they won’t beat the game or make it out alive. Perhaps that’s because of Robin Williams’ character getting trapped in the game at the start, which makes you believe things can go wrong. Whereas here, it just feels like crazy shit will keep happening until they finish. It may also be because you can infer ‘rules’ in Jumanji — we know monkeys are going to be mischievous, tigers might eat you, etc — whereas in Zathura, because it’s sci-fi, it’s all made up. And it feels made up as it goes along, too — because it’s not based on real life or an existing brand, we don’t know the characters, the monsters, etc.

Similarly, the characters benefit from way too much luck. The kids keep not reacting fast enough to stop or save things, but then something fortunate happens so things go their way. Maybe you could sell this as a deliberate thing — like, the game wants to be finished — but that’s not how it plays out. They just keep getting lucky, in a not-great-screenwriting way. Perhaps I’m projecting problems where there are none in these observations, but it’s just another factor towards not feeling jeopardy like I did in Jumanji. Overall, Zathura was just more… pleasant.

Play the game

That said, I had some more specific niggles. For a film that should’ve been trying to avoid accusations of being a rip-off, they invite it further by (spoiler alert!) giving one character a backstory that’s a riff on Robin Williams’ from the first movie. Zathura comes at it from a different angle, at least, but that’s a mixed blessing: it doesn’t have the same emotional effect because we only learn about it belatedly, but at least that means it isn’t ripping off Jumanji’s entire narrative structure, and also allows for a neat twist later on. There’s some time travel stuff that doesn’t wholly hang together, but then does it ever?

Equally, you can clearly tell they weren’t paying enough attention to every aspect of the screenplay: the older sister (played by a pre-fame Kristen Stewart, by-the-by) gets put in hibernation for five turns, but it takes eight turns before she wakes up. How no one noticed that is baffling — did they not think to just count it in the script? Even if they somehow missed it until post-production, all it would’ve taken is a dubbed line or two. “Five turns” sounds like a lot of gameplay to miss, so maybe they just thought “eight turns” would sound too ridiculous, but did they not think someone would spot it?!

Plot logic aside, at least the film has some great effects and design work. Jumanji has aged badly in that respect (the CGI is pretty ropey), whereas Zathura still looks great, in part because there’s actually a lot of props and models involved. The performances are pretty decent, too. Director Jon Favreau clearly has a talent for working with kids — the pair here; Mowgli in his Jungle Book; Robert Downey Jr… But in all seriousness, he gets really good performances out of these children.

Holy meteors!

Also worth noting is that the UK version was originally cut to get a PG… and remains cut, because the uncut rating wouldn’t just be a 12, it’d be a 15! That’s because of “imitable techniques”, which in this case means using an aerosol as a blowtorch to set fire to a sofa. The main thing I find interesting about this is that presumably the original cut shows the Astronaut setting fire to the sofa, whereas in the UK version it just suddenly cuts to him stood beside a sofa on fire, which is so much funnier. Hurrah for censorship, I guess.

And so we come to the score. Zathura is one of those films I find a little awkward to rate, because I did enjoy it — in some respects, more than I enjoyed Jumanji when I rewatched that recently — but it also doesn’t feel as polished and complete as its predecessor in terms of story and characters. Even as I had fun, I saw many things I felt could’ve been sharpened up. For that reason, I’ve erred towards a lower rating.

3 out of 5

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

2017 #139
Eric Brevig | 93 mins | download (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (as it’s actually titled on screen, a rarity for 3D movies) is a very loose (very, very loose) adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic fantasy novel — indeed, you could say it’s more of a sequel, as the characters’ adventure is inspired by the belief that Verne’s novel is actually an account of real events. It turns out they’re right, of course, because otherwise this would just be a movie about a man and his nephew trekking up a mountain to find nothing — which sounds like a film someone would make, but not an effects-driven summer blockbuster.

I remember Journey 3D (as the title card indecisively morphs into before finally moving on) going down quite poorly on its release a decade ago, but, looking up sources to cite for that now, I’m not wholly correct: it has 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which isn’t great but is still considered ‘fresh’, and grossed a respectable $242 million (off a budget of just $60 million). Nonetheless, I expected little of it (I watched it mainly because it’s on my 50 Unseen from 2008, a notoriously under-completed list) but wound up pleasantly surprised… in some respects, anyway.

They're all right

The key to my enjoyment was watching it in 3D, in which it plays more like a theme park attraction than a movie: from the very beginning it has loads of those “sticking stuff out into the audience” hijinks that no one bothers with anymore (indeed, after watching a dozen other 3D movies on my TV, I don’t think I’ve seen anything poke out before). Gimmicky and in your face (literally) though it may be, the effect works, it’s uncomplicatedly fun, and it makes the movie better just because it’s trying. Relatedly, this was the first film released in 4DX, the South Korean-developed theatrical format which features “tilting seats to convey motion, wind, sprays of water and sharp air, probe lights to mimic lightning, fog, scents, and other theatrical special effects”. I imagine all that palaver suits the film really well — as I said, it’s more like a theme park attraction than a regular movie anyhow.

However, that’s just one of the reasons why I imagine it would be nearly unwatchable in 2D. All the stuff that’s kinda fun in 3D would seem pointless in 2D, and the at-the-camera things would be horrendously blatant (I mean, they are in 3D, of course, but at least their purpose is retained). And as for the rest of the movie, the direction feels very TV-ish; or, again, like a theme park attraction — it’s a bit basic, basically. Some moments push towards achieving wonder. I’m not sure they quite get there, but I’ve seen worse. (Director Eric Brevig is a visual effects guy by trade, with credits ranging from The Abyss and Total Recall up through Men in Black and The Day After Tomorrow to John Carter and The Maze Runner, and many more besides. His second film as director was the Yogi Bear movie (you know, the one with that poster), which is probably why he’s not directed anything since.)

Remember when Hollywood thought Brendan Fraser was Harrison Ford?

Let’s not just reserve our criticism for the direction, though: the dialogue is terrible too, including what may be the single worst (or best — it’s so bad it’s good) exchange in the entire history of movies:

Trevor: Max was right. He was right! [shouting] Max! Was! Right! Ha ha! [to Sean] Your dad was right. He was right.
Sean: Hannah, your dad was right too.
Trevor: They both believed in something that everyone told them was impossible. He was right! [echoing:] He was right!

But hey, at least it makes an effort to do that screenwriting thing of eventually paying off every single thing we learnt about earlier… except for a yo-yo, the thing with the most “this is setup for later” introduction. Maybe the scene where they needed to do some hunting got cut… There’s added incidental amusement watching it a decade on thanks to the surprisingly old-fashioned technology on display: computer monitors are still CRTs; cool kids’ mobiles are still flip phones; being able to Google while on a plane is a wonder… It’s like the film is self consciously showing off how much technology has changed in the last decade — which it isn’t, obviously, because it couldn’t’ve known. And hey, if you don’t laugh at it you’ll cry because it’ll make you feel old.

Really, Journey 3D is cheesy, tacky, and kinda terrible… but I also enjoyed myself. Yes, a big part of that was the 3D. I’d never claim it was a good film, and I don’t think that I’d even recommend it, but I wouldn’t write off watching it again someday.

2 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

2015 #127
Francis Lawrence | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

If you’re not au fait with the first two Hunger Games movies, there’s nothing for you here. Why would you want to join a story halfway through anyway?

Even for those of us who are, Mockingjay Part 1 — the first half of a two-part finale that, for my money, plays more like its own standalone movie than most first halves of two-part finales manage (I’m thinking of Deathly Hallows 1 or The Matrix Reloaded here) — throws us in at the deep end, starting a little while after the end of the last film and challenging us to keep up. It’s a little frustrating at times — if you’ve not watched the previous movies into the ground, there are points where you wonder if you’ve forgotten something or just not been told it yet — but ultimately helps make for an engrossing, mature movie.

Naturally I mean “mature” in the sense of “grown up”, not in the oft-misused sense of “for adults only, wink wink”. This is a thoughtful film, one which has more time for examining issues of politicking than for bang-bang-a-boom fight scenes. Indeed, if you’ve come looking for an action movie — as, it seems, most critics did — then you’ll definitely be disappointed. If, however, you’re looking for a film to continue the series’ rich vein of sci-fi political allegory, well, you’re in luck. This edition: propaganda.

In the previous films, heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) inadvertently inspired a rebellion against the ruling Capitol, which has been bubbling away without her knowledge. Now, having been targeted by evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), she’s been transported to the underground locales of District 13, where they want to put her in films to continue spreading dissension among the other districts. At the same time, the Capitol are putting Katniss’ captured lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the air, arguing for peace and maintaining the status quo. It’s a war of hearts and minds, essentially, as both sides attempt to rally ordinary people to their cause through the power of the media. It’s a tale that’s as timely as ever, surely.

One of my favourite elements here is the distrust that both sides engender. The rebels Katniss has found herself with are certainly the good guys, battling to overthrow an abusively oppressive regime, but they aren’t whiter-than-white — they won’t always do everything our hero would like; she’s not always sure she can trust them. There’s no doubt about which side is the right one to be on, but it’s at least a little more complex than the norm.

Katniss herself remains a refreshingly un-self-assured heroine. She doesn’t always know or do what’s right, she isn’t always sure of her purpose or her goals, or even her own feelings. That’s so much more human than so many movie heroes, no doubt in part thanks to having an Oscar-able actress to carry the role. True, we’ve seen these facets before from her in both of the previous films, but hurrah to author Suzanne Collins and to the filmmakers for not taking the simple route of having her transform into something she didn’t start as. There’s still a whole outstanding film to bring about such a change, of course, so we’ll just have to wait and see how they follow this through to the end.

The fact there will be another film is an undoubted point of contention. The Hunger Games is the latest to follow in Harry Potter’s footsteps and split the final book of a series in two when filmed. Indeed, since Twilight latched onto that bandwagon it’s become de rigueur, with the final-book-split usually announced as soon as the first film in a wannabe-series is a box office hit — see the Divergent series, for example (or The Maze Runner for one that supposedly won’t succumb to this). Despite the complaints from many other critics and viewers, I must say that (as someone who hasn’t read the book) it didn’t feel overly like the first half of something longer to me. Of course there’s a cliffhanger and stuff, but there was at the end of the last film as well. This is no worse than that. If anything, I felt Mockingjay Part 1 built to its ending more successfully — I was quite surprised when Catching Fire stopped, whereas here the ending felt like a natural stopping point. In fact, given the point some of the storylines reach, it’s difficult to imagine them feeling anything other than rushed if they’d been executed in half the time. Maybe the film is a little drawn out in places and some storylines could’ve been condensed (how many propaganda films do we need to see Katniss make, really?), but that’s a niggle about perhaps wanting a minor trim, not a complaint decrying the need for full-blown editorial intervention.

Whether or not this Part 1 stands alone will be cemented by the next film, I feel. If the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead isn’t continued in Part 2 then, well, that’s the part of the story that this film is about. It doesn’t feel like it needs to be continued next time — that particular propaganda angle has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow; I hope it feels like Part 4 of 4, in the way this currently feels like Part 3 of 4, and doesn’t play as Part 3B of 3 and retroactively transform this into Part 3A.

If you like a lot of Hunger Games action from your Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 1 will certainly be a disappointment. On the other hand, if you more enjoy the political satire side of the series, it may be your favourite instalment so far (and you wouldn’t be alone in that view). For me, Catching Fire is the best of the three because it crystallises both of those constituent elements; and if the first film was purely the action side (with a bit of the politics), then here we find its mirror image: purely politics (with a bit of action). Either way, perhaps the ultimate fate of all these films rests on how well the next, final part can bring all their action, themes, and plots to fruition.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is available on Netflix UK from today.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

2014 #15
Francis Lawrence | 146 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 + 1.78:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hunger Games: Catching FireJennifer Lawrence (who, depending on your mileage, is either “the most charming young movie star in, like, forever” or “actually kind of a little bit irritating”) returns as the totally-plausibly-named Katniss Everdeen in this super-successful follow-up to the super-successful kids’ young adult novel adaptation that’s kinda like the new Twilight only actually quite good.*

Having struck a PR blow to the ruling elite by forcing their hand at the end of the previous Hunger Games, joint winners Katniss and Peeta (pronounced “Peter” (Josh Hutcherson)) are back home. But not for long, because in an attempt to reassert control it’s decided the forthcoming 75th Hunger Games will feature previous combatants — and Katniss and Peeta are their District’s only choice. Cue an almost-rehash of the first film, but with different burgeoning political undertones, and the added twist of the competitors all being previous winners. There are much bigger twists than that coming, though…

Indeed, perhaps the most striking part of Catching Fire is its ending. That’s not to say the rest of the film isn’t entertaining — it really is, but it’s a variation on a theme; that theme being “the first one again”, even if this is arguably a superior version. The ending, however, suggests things are about to be launched off in a radically new direction, as well as casting a new light on the film we’ve just watched. These closing moments most literally remind me of The Matrix Reloaded: following a surprise world-changing development, our hero lies recuperating on a spaceship with new-found allies among the resistance, while outside in the rest of the world a final showdown brews…

Katniss' backTonally, however, it’s more similar to The Empire Strikes Back** — indeed, the Star Wars comparison applies to both Hunger Games films and their relationship to each other: the first is the story of an unwitting small-town kid becoming a hero and landing a decisive blow against the evil ruling body in a standalone adventure; but our heroes have only won the battle, not the war, and the evil empire rolls on… Cue Film #2, in which we get a wider view of the world, the bad guys seek our heroes more directly, and everything comes to a head in a blatant “to be continued” cliffhanger that unavoidably draws us on to the next instalment.

On The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson goes so far as to assert that, not only are they alike, but “Catching Fire’s ending is the most daring “to be continued” since Empire Strikes Back”. She argues that they are executed in a style which none of the multitudinous other cliffhanger-ending-ed films made since (including everything from Back to the Future to The Lord of the Rings) can claim to have achieved in quite the same way. To take her final sentences: “Most serial films end by spelling out exactly how the characters are headed into disaster, and in some cases, exactly what they plan to do about it. Empire and Catching Fire closes [sic] with a sense not just of something continuing, but potentially, even more thrillingly, of something new beginning.” Her whole piece is worth a read.

The Emperor, or somethingOf course, to an extent the tone of this ending comes from it being an adaptation: the filmmakers haven’t looked at the history of movie cliffhangers and chosen which to emulate, but instead brought someone else’s ending to the screen. Adapting doesn’t mean you have to take the original work faithfully, mind — you could go the Game of Thrones route and rearrange exactly where one book ends and the next begins; or the James Bond / Jason Bourne route of doing just whatever the hell you want. I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ original novels, but I get the impression the films are pretty faithful.

Indeed, perhaps the real strength of Catching Fire being an adaptation of a novel is that it’s bedded in one author’s voice. My point being: it wasn’t written and constructed by committee, meaning we’re not subjected to the over-familiar beats of an action-adventure movie. There aren’t regularly-spaced action sequences of ever-increasing scale throughout, for instance — it’s not until halfway through that we end up in the arena, and up to that point it’s all story, the only action being ‘events’ rather than your traditional Action Sequence. This is no bad thing. If it’s adaptations of young adult novels that we need to save us from predictability, to deliver us a story rather than a thin excuse for the delivery of evenly-spaced action sequences, then so be it.

When the Games do arrive, director Francis Lawrence makes the most of it: as Katniss finally rises into the arena, the aspect ratio subtly shifts from filmic 2.40:1 to IMAX-derived 1.78:1. It’s remarkable how much impact this has even on a TV screen; nothing like what it must have in a proper IMAX theatre, but striking nonetheless — it really feels like things have just gotten bigger, both in terms of events depicted and the cinematography, Not Stormtroopers, nopewhich seems richer, more detailed, despite no genuine increase in resolution. I guess it’s true what they say: if you start with a higher quality source, it filters all the way down. The “bigger screen” effect probably wouldn’t work for a film entirely shot on IMAX — it’d just fill your TV from the start — but, after an hour-or-so of black bars, it really feels like the screen has grown.

Last year was one of mixed fortunes for the blockbuster, when films that one might deem well-received actually had an equal number of detractors; but Catching Fire stands apart as an engrossing, entertaining, intelligent and invigorating success. I guess it too must have its detractors, but I suspect not as many, and not as deservedly.

5 out of 5

The first Hunger Games is on Film4 tonight at 9pm. The next (and penultimate) instalment, Mockingjay: Part 1, is in UK cinemas from this Thursday, 20th November.


* I’ve still not seen any of the Twilight films, but I remain confident that, when I do, I’m not going to like them. ^

** I’m certainly not the first person to notice this: Googling “Catching Fire Empire Strikes Back comparison” brings up about 66,000 results — it used to be more, and obviously it misses anyone who’s making the comparison without using the world “comparison”. ^